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Every hour, there are an average of 17 automobile fires somewhere in the U.S., according to government data. Mechanical failure in internal combustion engines cause the majority, and burning cars filled with gasoline result in more than 200 deaths per year. Yet far more attention is being paid to one all-electric Tesla Model S that caught fire on October 1 after metallic debris pierced a module in its battery pack. The driver of the car walked away. A video of the fire went viral online this week.
A lithium-ion battery fire is different from a gasoline fire, because lithium and water can be explosive in combination. Much as one should not fight a grease fire with water (but rather smother it), one should use alternative means, such as chemical sprays, to put out an electric car fire. Yet the firefighters on scene used water at first to attempt to douse the Model S flames, thereby intensifying them. Extinguishing the fire required cutting into the frame of the vehicle in order to reach the embedded battery pack and dousing the cells with flame-snuffing chemicals, according to the firefighters' report.
The Tesla Model S remains a car that garnered the highest safety rating possible from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in testing earlier this year. And electric cars, thanks to government financial support, have doubled the total sales of all hybrid vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius, in their first years of availability—more than 110,000 Chevy Volts, Nissan LEAFs and others have sold since their introduction in January 2011. Tesla Motors hopes to sell some 21,000 Model S EVs this year and the vehicle is already the best-selling electric car. It has captured more than 8 percent of the total luxury market in the first half of 2013, surpassing conventional luxury cars like the Audi A8, BMW 7-series and Mercedes S class. There are already 13,000 Teslas on the road in North America, and only one has ever caught fire in an accident.
While extolling the virtues of Tesla Motors at an event at Columbia University on August 26, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz joked about the riskiness of the government's now repaid $465-million loan to the electric carmaker, noting that the loan was made in the same month that General Motors declared bankruptcy. "It was a risk," he said. "Now Tesla is looking today like a great success…[although] it's a little bit pricy for some of the people in this room." The Model S starts at roughly $68,000 for a car with the smallest, 60 kilowatt-hour battery pack, which is rated for roughly 210 miles of range.
Even at that price it is the California pollution credits that Tesla sells to other automakers there that boosted the company into profitability for the first time in its decade long existence this year. And EVs overall are certainly not on track to meet goals such as 75 percent of U.S. vehicles being electric by 2040 or the Obama administration's one million electric cars on the road by 2015. "We are competing with a technology [internal combustion vehicles] that has been in the market and improving in the market for a century," says Jonna Hamilton, vice president of policy at the Electrification Coalition, an electric car industry group. The electric car may find itself only a niche product, rather than a replacement for conventional cars moved by internal combustion—even if EVs are safer overall.